Wednesday, 5 December 2012
A picnic with Ian Cheyne
One of these days somebody will tell the story of Ian Cheyne and his marvellous colour woodcuts. Untill then, I shall be tramping that lonely Highland road in search of Ian Cheyne myself. Hopefully, I won't be on my own. The last post about the SGPC exhibition in 1929 has started off a valuable discussion about the way Cheyne went about making his prints. Now these are readers with great expertise in printing, but even for them the real problem is not having a Cheyne print to look at. This post, using rather poor images of Summer Picnic, which I am fortunate enough to own, will hopefully give people something more to go on.
But first the story. Ian Cheyne didn't begin to exhibit colour woodcuts untill he joined the Society of Artist Printers in Glasgow in 1926. Both he and Jessie Garrow, the woman he eventually married, had been students at Glasgow School of Art in the early twenties, but it was Garrow who seems to have made the colour woodcuts first. The Studio Magazine had already published her striking and frankly unusual print The Wave in 1924. Just as their contemporaries in England had done with the Society of Wood Engravers and the Colour Woodcut Society in the early twenties, young Glasgow printmakers had founded the SAP as an exhibiting society in 1921. By 1926, their first six exhibits were by artists working in England: Ethel Kirkpatrick, Kenneth Broad, Yoshijiro Urushibara, Miriam Deane, ECA Brown and Mary Batten, so everyone was well aware of a wide range of work from England, even if some of the big names were absent. What the recent discussion has highlighted yet again is that Ian Cheyne was more aware than most.
The picture I get of Jessie Garrow and Ian Cheyne is of two fashionable young people. Garrow's main work had been as an illustrator and writer on fashion and interior decoration for the Glasgow Evening News and The Lady magazine and The Wave shows three young women alarmed that the sea might splash their elegant clothes as they walk along a quayside. One of the most interesting points made recently was that Cheyne possibly used pochoir, as stencilling used for French fashion plates and book illustration in the twenties was known. But stencilling was also much in use by dyers in Japan and looking at the leaves of the trees above, it certainly strikes me that Cheyne had applied pochoir methods in imitation of Japanese practice on his prints. The application of pigment is even, while brush strokes are visible on the paler greens to the right.
He may also have used pochoir for the mountain. The other interesting effect is bokashi, or the graduation of colour, used by both Hiroshige and Hokusai, especially with the European pigment, Prussian blue. This graduation was achieved by either lowering the block or a straightforward application by hand. That Cheyne made use of various ways of applying his pigments you can make out, I'm sure, from the images here. The date I have for Summer Picnic is 1928, when he was already an experienced artist in his early thirties. The two earliest prints he exhibited in 1926, Kirkfieldbank and A Highland Loch, have not turned up online, at least, so it's impossible to get a real idea of what all his early work was like.
And so it goes on. Alot of the images from old catalogues are in black and white. All the prints I have the details of, including Summer Picnic, were issued in editions of only twenty, a low figure for work showing such talent, but one that helps explain exactly why it is that his prints are now so hard to come by. That habit goes right through to the last prints he made after the second war. Normandy Beach and Primulas from 1946, and Springtime in Kintail from 1947, were all issued in editions of twenty. It is an extraordinary state of affairs. The irony is that Colnaghi wrote in 1945 asking whether he could supply proofs for sale. Perhaps this was why he set to and made those new ones. John Platt was the only other colour woodcutter staying the course after the war, but the fact is Mrs Cheyne, who died in 1993, still had unsold prints by her husband, some signed, some not, as late as 1984 or 1985. That no one had taken any interest untill then more or less says it all. That we are still no better today when it comes to knowing more about this first-rate printmaker says just that bit more, if you get my drift.